Newark: A city of big opportunities — that come with big challenges

All-star panel of Saraceno, Giantomasi, Berson, Chapin, Watson and Walsh debate and discuss development

After a listing of all the incredible metrics that define Newark: From the eds and meds … to the convergence of car, rail and ship routes … to the proximity to the most important city in the world, John Saraceno brought up an attribute that’s often overlooked: the passion.

Saraceno, the co-founder and co-managing principal of Onyx Equities, said the reaction he received after purchasing Gateway 1, 2 and 4 in the final days of 2018 was unlike anything he had seen in his decades of purchasing properties.

“After we closed, there was not 24 hours that I was not bombarded with local people who had nothing but positive things to say,” he said. “Everyone was trying to help. Everyone had an opinion. That never happened to me in my career.

“I was like: ‘Why does everyone (care) so much? It’s an office building.’ But there’s a passion about Newark — and there’s a sense of community about Newark — that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the state.”

Saraceno, speaking Wednesday at the Newark Redevelopment Update conference sponsored by Real Estate New Jersey on the campus of New Jersey Institute of Technology, said that passion puts a sense of responsibility on landlords and developers — one that he accepts wholeheartedly.

As one of the many people in the state who once said they would never work in Newark, Saraceno said he now couldn’t imagine working anywhere else.

All of this begs the question: What will it take to get others to feel the same way?

Make no mistake, Newark is on an upswing — both in commercial properties and multifamily housing starts — but there are issues, starting with education.

The K-12 education system still has challenges, which makes many workers who commute into the city hesitant to move in.

And, while Newark has one of the largest college populations of any city in the country (more than 65,000), very few of them (perhaps as low as 5,000) live in the city — which means the city does not get the benefit of housing and small business support that other college towns do.

On top of that, most of those college students end up taking jobs outside of the city after they graduate.

Frank Giantomasi, a member at Chiesa Shahinian & Giantomasi P.C., and unquestionably the top real estate lawyer in Newark for decades, said this is a big issue.

“You have to acknowledge that our students are trained for four years to drive in, park and then drive somewhere else,” he said.

Marc Berson, one of the most impactful developers in the city for decades, agreed.

“That’s been a serious concern from a social point of view for those who want to see the growth of the city,” he said. “We need to hold our graduates … how do we attract them to come back?”

Berson notes one of his buildings, 550 Broad, is meeting that need — with help from a corporate partner, Audible.

After finding the building was not attracting the single-floor tenants he thought it would attract, Berson began subdividing floors into much smaller units that are attracting smaller startups — some with financial assistance from Audible (which has done as much as anyone to help grow Newark).

“They’re providing the kind of funding we otherwise would be seeing from a state economic development agency — and it’s working,” he said.

“It’s becoming a terrific community, which is pro-Newark, which wants to live and work in the community. It’s one of the real opportunities that exists in Newark.”

This assistance isn’t just coming from a lot of different areas.

Sam Chapin, managing director of L+M Development Partners, which has produced many commercial and residential properties in the last decade, said assistance was key to getting one of the firm’s hallmark projects done.

“Everybody’s made some references to the transportation and physical infrastructure that’s an asset of the city, but there’s an institutional infrastructure here that is really pro-development and supportive of the stuff we’ve done,” he said.

“I want to make it super clear, the Hahne Building doesn’t happen in 2013 without the impact and investment of Prudential and Rutgers, who said at that time — and continue to say — that the boundaries between our institution and the community around us need to be broken down completely.”

Berson, who noted the growth of museums, arts centers and the arena, said the city is changing — but going at its own pace.

“On one hand, you can say, ‘Newark has been very slow to get here,’ but, on the other hand, say, ‘Wow, this is real area to have opportunity,’ ” he said.

All of the panelists agreed it’s a matter of making the numbers.

Lower rents don’t mean lower costs to build for developers. And lower rents for retailers often come with lower revenue totals.

That’s why, for the massive building spree that has taken place in the past decade, there still are plenty of vacant lots that have been untouched over that time period.

That’s why there are both opportunities and challenges.

And, along with the passion, there is plenty of optimism.

Just ask Giantomasi, who was born and raised in the city. He was thrilled to see more than 400 top real estate professionals at the event. He knows why they were there.

“Everybody’s here because they see opportunity — and that’s the essence for me,” he said “And that’s the essence of why clients are coming into my office. They still see opportunity.”

Giantomasi sees a different city than the one he grew up in.

“These are the best of times,” he said. “I was a grammar-school boy in public school in Newark. I was born and raised here — and I lived through the riots. It wasn’t a fantasy to me. I didn’t watch it on television, I ran from it in the Ironbound. Those are the worst times.

“Right now, today, these are the best times, and we’re not done. I think that the big point is that we’re in midstream. And we’re not on a descent. We’re on an ascent.”